Worship Service for May 17, 2020

May 17, 2020 – the Sixth Sunday of Easter

A message from the Rev. Bob Smith

Welcome message in spoken audio by Rev. B. Smith. Click on the triangle at left to start listening.

Dear Friends;

Greetings to you as we reach out across the distancing, to connect as a congregation of God’s people.  If you’re like me, you listen every day to the premier’s announcement of what new freedom will be awarded to us as we move slowly into a recovery.  Things are opening up, but sadly, not enough for us in the church to gather for worship.  As hard as it is, and out of respect for those who are still at risk, we keep our distance.

I read a tweet from a teenager who said, “My Mom used to say I won’t amount to anything, lying on the couch with my video games.  But now, I’m lying on the couch with my video games, saving the world.”

So we give ourselves to being part of the solution by staying home.  Helen and I hope in the meantime that these worship resources are a way to stay connected as a community of faith, and to be reminded of the hope that is ours in Christ.  And as we offer them, we offer thanks to the church staff – Lisa, Rachelle, Laura and Wayne – who faithfully help to make this happen, and to keep things together at the church. 

Grace and peace to you,

Rev. Bob Smith

St Paul Preaching in Athens, by Raphael (1515). From the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, via the Wikimedia Commons.

Opening Hymn

Book of Praise – 422 “Sing a new song unto the Lord

  • video with on-screen lyrics. The sung lyrics differ slightly from the hymnbook.
  • Recorded by the St. Louis Jesuits; on their album May We Praise You – Music from the St. Louis Jesuits – Vol. 2 (1997).

Prayers of Adoration and Confession, Lord’s prayer

Gracious God, in this time of worship we take time away from the other pursuits of our lives to be with you and – though still at a distance – with one another.  We pray for your presence among us.  Help us to put aside all those things that have drawn us away from you this week, and as we come before you, help us to centre ourselves on you.  We bring to you our love and adoration, and ask that you speak to us and renew us in this hour.  All praise and glory be to you, creator, redeemer and spirit, one God forever.

O God, in whom we live and move and have our being, we pause to confess those times when we have worshiped other gods, the gods of money, or things, or worldly distractions.  While we are quick to find fault in others, we ourselves are not faultless.  You ask us to love you and walk in your way, and we do not do it.  Hear us as we make our confession to you.

Forgive us, we pray.  You have promised not to abandon us or leave us as orphans. Hear our prayers for your forgiveness, and send your Holy Spirit among us.  In the name of Jesus we pray, and join together to offer the prayer that he taught us:

Our Father, in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those
who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours
now and forever. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon and the Peace

Hear the good news! Who is in a position to condemn? Only Christ —

And Christ died for us; Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us. Friends, believe the good news of the gospel. In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven and set free by God’s generous grace.

The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

(And also with you.)

Scripture

Scripture reading of Acts 17:22–31 in spoken audio by church member Susan Tomkins. Click on the triangle at left to start listening.

Acts 17:22–31 <– this links to on-line text of the NRSV bible

Click here for additional scripture readings from today’s lectionary. Links courtesy of the Revised Common Lectionary, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

Children’s Story

Christian Education Coordinator Laura Alary has recorded a video on YouTube, and writes in preface:

“The story this week is a picture book called In God’s Hands. It is the retelling of a Jewish folk tale written by Lawrence Kushner and Gary Schmidt, illustrated by Matthew J. Back, and published by Jewish Lights Press.

This parable about the power of human kindness to embody divine love seemed like a good choice for Ascension Day, when we remember that Jesus went away so that he could be present in a new way—a way unbounded by the limits of time and space. In the Following Jesus Centre we sing a song based on the words of Theresa of Avila. In its own way, this folk tale articulates a similar message:

Christ has no body now but mine;
No hands, no feet on earth but mine.
Christ has no body now but mine;
Let me be Christ, let me shine.

Sermon

You may have caught on TV CBC’s show Still Standing
featuring the Canadian comic, Jonny Harris,
          who you may also know from Murdoch Mysteries.
On his show, Harris, a Newfoundlander,
visits small towns across the country, one per episode,
                    and finds his way to the heart of these little communities
                             by climbing with the people into their tractors out in the field,
                                       jumping onto their fishing boats,
                                       getting invited into their kitchens,
                                       and sitting around the tables in coffee shops.
He immerses himself into their lives.
The show ends before a live audience of townsfolk
          and he entertains them and us
with a gentle and light-hearted recounting
of what he has seen and heard.
By the end of the show he has the crowd on its feet cheering —
          and this, I think, is the secret to his success —
                   all just by telling them stories about themselves.

For a visiting supply preacher from out of town,
          Paul sure knows how to hook his crowd,
                   and his secret is the same.
Like Jonny Harris, what Paul is doing here
          is called “playing to the crowd.”

Paul is from Jerusalem —
he’s a long way from home in Athens today,
                   and he knows how to get the crowd’s attention.
He has climbed on hung around the coffee shops long enough
          to figure out their language,
          to learn what makes them tick
                   and he uses it, in this case,
not to get them laughing,
                             but to present to them the good news of Jesus Christ.

Paul has come to Athens,
          a proud city of thinkers and philosophers,
          a city of intellectual reserve
                   that will look down its collective nose at a stranger like Paul
and say,
“Let’s hear what this foreign babbler has to say.
What’s the latest idea that people are talking about in Jerusalem?”
which is pretty much what it says
          in the verses leading up to our text.

It’s as if they will treat what he is offering
as the flavour of the week,
something that they will chat about for a while,
then try to poke holes in his reasoning,
before they move on next week to something else.

As he has been poking around the city
and sitting in the coffee shops,
Paul has recognized a lot of evidence
of what we would call pagan religion,
with statues or shrines dedicated to all sorts of deities —
a god of war
a god of fertility
a god for the weather
and so on.

And just to top it off,
in case they might have missed one,
and wanting to be sure not to offend one of these gods
through some oversight,
there’s one additional altar with the inscription,
                             “to an unknown God.”

I think Paul sees through all of this.
Many have suggested that religion in Athens at the time
          was pretty much irrelevant,
                   and not up to par
with their reputation for debate and philosophy.
It may well have operated
          on the level of having a lucky Rabbits foot
                   or always playing the same lottery numbers.

So when Paul says,
          “I see that you’re very religious,”
what he is really thinking is probably more like,
          “I see you are very superstitious,” or
          “I see you have no idea in the world
                    what’s going on with the things of the Spirit.”
or
          “I see that you don’t know the first thing about God,
                   and that you’ll grasp at anything that you think might help in a pinch,
                             and that you’ll cover all the bases you can, just in case,
                                      to save yourselves if it turns out
                                                that there really is a God up there.”

Maybe the Athenians are not so different from Canadians in our own day
          when something like 80% of us
tell pollsters that they believe in God,
          but more like 20% or even less
are actually involved in the life of a church in a meaningful way,
or have that belief influence at all how they live their lives.

Maybe our society today
is something like Athens in the first century,
          with our money and power,
with our accomplishments and our pride,
          and with religion reduced to a harmless and old-fashioned pastime
                   for those few who are inclined that way.

It’s not hard to imagine what shrines and altars
          Paul might point out in a city like Toronto today —
(let’s imagine this in our pre-pandemic life)
                   money, progress,
towering buildings, people rushing this way and that,
professional sports, entertainment,
the good life.

And the modern parallel to the altar to the unknown God,
just to hedge our bets?
          Maybe that’s just the lip service
                   that many give to the faith
                             in our post-modern world.
          Maybe it’s a church that is struggling just to know
                   who it is, or who God is,
                             with all the changes around us.
Maybe it’s a church that has begun to wonder
if we have anything left to say
          to a world that seems to have moved on,
or whether the God we have followed all these years,
exists at all,
and if God does exist
whether that God can be known in any real way.

Paul may have stretched things a bit
          to interpret the Athenians’ altar “to an unknown God”
                   as a genuine hunger for a deep spiritual connection with God,
          but deep down, is that not a hunger that all of us have,
                   whether we realize it or not?

Isn’t our hunger
          to believe in something
          to find meaning
          to be happy
          to have our lives count for something lasting
          to sense that whether we can really know it or not,
                   there are greater forces at work in our lives,
                   and higher values to which we can give ourselves —
          isn’t all of that a hunger for God?

Blaise Pascal, the 17th century mathematician and philosopher, once said,
that there is in each of us a God-shaped hole
which can be filled, of course, only by God.
Now that in itself is a faith statement,
          but one that many people sense
is true for them.

So, drawing on that hunger for God,
          trying to help them fill that hole,
          inviting them to know a God who has been nothing but mystery to them,
Paul makes his pitch to the philosophers in Athens.

Let me introduce you to this God, Paul says,
the God, of whom you are only vaguely aware,
whom you seek without knowing it,
who will be the answer to all the vague longing
                    of your hearts.

Instead of building all your fancy shrines
                   to a host of higher beings,
          this is the one true God who in fact
made you, and the world which is your home.
And rather than living in these images
                   made with human hands out of rock or stone,
          this is a God who is not ‘out there’
but nearer to us than breath itself.

“Do you want to know what God is like?”  Paul asks.
“Let me tell you.”
This God is known through the creation itself,
          whose beauty and complexity and wonder
                   are God’s handiwork
                   and God’s gift.
This God is so other, so transcendent,
          that even with all our accomplishments and intellect,
                    God isn’t waiting on us to run errands for him.

This God is the Lord of all life
          who gives and shapes and provides
                   for all that we need in life.
This God, who is the truth that we seek,
                    the meaning which is our quest —
          this God is closer than you think,
                    in fact, “in him we live and move and have our being.”

And running underneath all of Paul’s argument
                   and becoming more explicit at the end,
          is that truth that the church has claimed since the first century,
                   that this God has been made known in Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the one in whom
          God was pleased to dwell in all his fullness.
It is in him that God became flesh.
It is in his teachings
          that God’s will and way can be understood.
It is in his suffering, death and resurrection
          that God’s love, power and hope
                   were most fully communicated to us.

Sure, at times God seems far away.
At times we don’t feel God’s presence.
Sometimes God is silent to us.

But for us and for our salvation, as the Nicene Creed says,
          this God came down from heaven,
                   shrugging off the veil of mystery,
and became real and knowable,
up-close and personal,
in the person of Jesus Christ.
That’s Paul’s message to the Athenians and to us.
And my point is that with all our modern human accomplishments
          in communication and travel
          in medicine and engineering
          in education and artistic expression,
                   as magnificent and wonderful as they all are
                             we may need to hear, even more than the Athenians,
                                      Paul’s humbling, and freeing words.

What Jesus can bring to us
is something that will change our lives,
          and not be just another flavour of the week;
it’s not just another mind-game,
                    something to titillate the brain for little while,
          but something that will awaken and inspire
                   that will enlarge our view of the world,
                             and give us a new sense of what we bring to it.

You will discover, if you give yourself to it,
that God will be to you — up close, intimately —
like the air that you breathe
like the water that holds you up when you’re swimming,
a presence that will always be with you
to give life and sustain you.

This is not a message that is going to go down
          any more easily here and now,
          than in did in Athens in Paul’s day.
So if the people around us are going to hear this
          and not get carried away with themselves
                   and their accomplishments,
          but to find their fullness in God,
                   then maybe we are the ones who can show them the way.
Maybe we can be the ones to introduce them
          to their unknown God,
          to the One whom they may, in fact, really be seeking
                   without even realizing it.

By grace, may they see God and come to know God
          through us, as we live lives that are authentic
                   and are offered in the service of the One
                             “in whom we live and move and have our being.”
The good news is
that the God we want to know
          wants to know us even more.
The God whom we seek
          has been seeking us all along
                   and wants with us a relationship
                             that will connect us intimately with God’s will and ways.

What Paul saw in Athens
was a pride that needed to be set aside
to discover a life centred not on themselves, but on God.
They and we need to discover that this search to know God,
is not about us
but God,
not about the cleverness of our intellect,
but acknowledging the greatness of God,
not about all we have achieved,
but recognizing all that God has given to us in Christ,
not to get carried away by our own accomplishments,
but to delight in the loving creativity of God.

Augustine, way back in the fourth century, wrote,
“Our hearts, O God, are restless,
  until they find their rest in you.”
Thanks be to God
for how we have found our rest
in the knowledge and the love the One,
“in whom we live and move and have our being.”

Amen.

The Areopagus (“Hill of Ares”) in Athens, Greece, from which Paul is reputed to have preached today’s scripture reading. Image from the Wikimedia Commons.

Musical Meditation

Meditation on “Breathe on me, breath of God” performed on piano and organ in the sanctuary on May 14, 2020, by Rachelle Risling, Music Director of GCPC.

Based on Hymn 389 “Breathe on me, breath of God” in the Book of Praise hymnbook (p 507, Presbyterian Church in Canada, 1997). Music: Tune “Trentham” by English church organist Robert Jackson (1840–1914), in the public domain. This arrangement: copyright © 2020 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church.

Offertory

We remind everyone that we must continue to pay our bills; in the absence of Sunday worship, you may sign up for pre-authorized remittance (PAR), donate online via our CanadaHelps page, or drop off your offering envelope in the mailbox at the church. Do not leave a cash donation unattended in the mailbox; instead, please call the office (416.261.4037) to ensure someone will be there to receive it. The building will be checked daily for mail and phone messages. If you are not comfortable leaving an envelope, you are welcome to contact the office (once again, 416.261.4037) and someone will pick up your offering.

Prayers of Thanksgiving and Hope

We thank you, O God, that you have made yourself known to us in Jesus, your son, the crucified and risen saviour.  We praise you for the hope we have in him, for his promise that he will be with us, and for his assurance that we are his.  All praise be to you, O God, who made us, redeems us, and fills us.

God of the church, we pray for your church throughout the world, that it would be strengthened and encouraged.  Lift it up and keep it faithful.  Help it to respond to your word, prophetically proclaiming your love for all people, faithfully following where you lead and trying in every way to serve you. 

God of love, we pray for our homes and families in this time of being apart, the homes from which we come, the families in which we now share, the circles of love of which we are a part.  Help us all to do our part to keep that love strong and to nurture the gift that is ours in our families.  May we encourage each other, build up one another forgive one another, and make our homes a place where your love is known.

God of the suffering, we pray for the sick, the bereaved, the oppressed and the homeless, especially in the face of a pandemic.  Bring your release and hope, we pray.  May no-one feel themselves to be beyond the reach of your care, but to feel your presence, be encouraged by your good news, and receive your peace.  We pray with thanksgiving for front-line health care workers and all who help and serve us in any way, to enable us all to live in these times of separation.  Help us all to be agents of your blessing to others, so that they may be strengthened and given hope. 

For ourselves, O God, help us to live abundantly knowing that in you we live and move and have our being.  Help us to live faithfully, desiring only to love you and our neighbour, and to build up your reign on the earth.  Remind us that you care for our needs and struggles, and give us grace to realize that by your power we may be the ones you are calling to help meet the needs of others, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Closing Hymn

Book of Praise – 472 “God is love: come heaven adoring

Commissioning and Benediction

Benediction in spoken audio by Rev. B. Smith. Click on the triangle at left to start listening.

Go in peace to live in the service of the one
in whom we live and move and have our being.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
be with you all, now and forever.

          Amen.

Danish Choral Amen. Book of Praise 780. Music director Rachelle Risling (keyboard); Robert Quickert (vocals). Click triangle at left to begin listening.